Coming home from the Forever War can be difficult. Not long after returning from Afghanistan as a Marine officer in early 2011, I found myself feeling betrayed by compatriots who worshiped the idea of my service while refusing to confront what that service entailed. There is a chasm of awareness that often exists between veterans and civilians, especially during an age in which an all-volunteer military prosecutes never-ending wars, and in which those Americans who end up experiencing combat prove statistically negligible.
It isn’t so much a chasm of awareness as a chasm of memory. The problem with veterans is we keep remembering our wars when we are supposed to join everyone else in forgetting them. Today I experience that gap most viscerally in politics, and liberal or progressive politics in particular, where celebrated commentators like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell fail to cover America’s ongoing wars and the role some of their favorite guests have played in launching and expanding them.
I remember what it felt like to believe every word of the Bush-era officials and journalists after the September 11 attacks, and I remember what it felt like when I donned the US Marine uniform in response to those words. I remember what it felt like to step foot in Afghanistan, and I remember what it felt like when I started having doubts about why I was there. I remember what it felt like to realize how wrong I was about the strategic efficacy and moral necessity of the war, how wrong everyone I trusted was, and how wrong the war had always been. The war in Afghanistan, like most of America’s wars, had come to strike me as not only a profitable lie, but a ruinous one. I remember what it first felt like to be an immediate witness to needless destruction and death, and what it felt like to recognize I would live with that feeling for the rest of my life.
The fact that those same Bush-era officials and pundits have now become heroes among partisan Democrats—the fact that the late John McCain, arguably America’s most enthusiastic warmonger, has now become something of a liberal patron saint—drives me toward despair. It is not as if my sense of hopelessness emerged from a vacuum. By the time I was discharged from the Marines in the late spring of 2011, President Obama had already caved to the militarists on Libya and the drone war, was beginning to double down on an unaccountable surveillance state and was waffling on the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. He would soon back Saudi Arabia’s war of aggression in Yemen, a war many now consider genocidal. On the other hand, Obama executed significant troop withdrawals in Iraq and (eventually) Afghanistan, and he served as a comparatively dovish voice on Iran, Syria, and Russia. He was no ally to the Palestinians, yet his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu was icy. He also tended to keep his distance from the neoconservatives responsible for so much of the chaos in the Greater Middle East. At the very least, he didn’t go out of his way to revive their influence.